National Lampoon, American adult-oriented humour magazine published between 1970 and 1998, notable for its spot-on parodies as well as its influence on popular culture.
Origin, success, and decline
National Lampoon was established by Harvard University graduates Henry Beard, Robert Hoffman, and Doug Kenney, all of whom had worked on The Harvard Lampoon, a college humour magazine established in 1876. During their tenure at The Harvard Lampoon, Beard, Hoffman, and Kenney were instrumental in publishing several nationally distributed magazine and book parodies, including parodies of Time, Playboy, Life, and Lord of the Rings.
Beard, Hoffman, and Kenney aspired to create a national humour magazine in the vein of The Harvard Lampoon, and in 1969 they approached Matty Simmons and Len Mogel, owners of 21st Century Communications, about publishing a magazine for young adults called National Lampoon. The Harvard Lampoon had established a relationship with 21st Century Communications a year earlier when Simmons was approached to help boost ad sales for The Harvard Lampoon’s parody of Timemagazine.
Mogel and Simmons believed there was a market for a publication aimed at the counterculture and negotiated a publishing deal with Beard, Hoffman, and Kenney that included the creation of a new company called National Lampoon, Inc., licensing of the Lampoon name, and $350,000 in seed money. 21st Century Communications owned two-thirds of the new company and Beard, Hoffman, and Kenney one-third, collectively. Hoffman also negotiated a five-year buyout clause for the trio based on earnings when the buyout came due, a provision that would make all three men millionaires.
Beard, Hoffman, and Kenney shared editorial duties and set about hiring a staff of writers and artists. New York-based cartoonists Peter Bramley and Bill Skurski, owners of Cloud Studio, were hired as the magazine’s art directors. After their lack of relevant skills quickly became apparent, Bramley and Skurski were replaced by Michael Gross. In addition to Beard, Hoffman, and Kenney, the magazine’s first writers included George Trow (who often used the pseudonym Tamara Gould), Christopher Cerf, Michael Frith, and Michael O’Donoghue.
The first issue of National Lampoon was published in April 1970. The cover featured a conventionally attractive woman in a bathing suitjuxtaposed to a thought bubble containing a cartoon duck, which initially was to be the magazine’s mascot, though it never appeared on the cover again. Less than half of the premiere issue’s 500,000-copy print run was sold, but by late 1970 the magazine had started to show a profit.
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Sales of National Lampoon would begin to decline in the 1980s and continued a downward spiral into the 1990s. In 1989 actor Tim Matheson and producer Daniel Grodnik purchased the controlling interest in the company from Simmons. They resold the company to J2 Communications in 1990 after failing to reinvigorate the publication. J2 Communications was primarily interested in the Lampoonbrand, and the magazine was published only sporadically throughout the 1990s, primarily to retain the rights to the Lampoon name. The final issue appeared in November 1998.
Parodies and special editions
Over its history National Lampoon published numerous book, comic book, and magazine parodies, which were notable for their extraordinary attention to detail. In 1974 it published the stand-alone 1964 High School Yearbook Parody, which sold more than 1.5 million copies. The Sunday Newspaper Parody—fabricating the Republican-Democrat of fictitious Dacron, Ohio—followed in 1978, complete with a comics section and a Sunday supplement.
Several “best of” compilations also were published, in addition to numerous special publications, including The 199th Birthday Book: A Tribute to the United States of America, 1776–1975 (1975), which riffed on the U.S. Bicentennial celebration, National Lampoon Presents the Very Large Book of Comical Funnies (1975), The Naked and the Nude: Hollywood and Beyond (1976), and The National Lampoon Encyclopedia of Humor (1973), edited by Michael O’Donoghue. The National Lampoon Encyclopedia of Humor included a parody of a Volkswagen advertisement, written by Anne Beatts, which obliquely referenced the so-called Chappaquiddick incident (relating to the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a campaign worker for U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, on July 18–19, 1969). Volkswagen USA filed a $30 million defamation and copyright-infringement suit that resulted in the recall of 135,000 copies of the special publication.
In 1972 National Lampoon issued a comedy record titled National Lampoon Radio Dinner. It sold well, and a year later it was followed by the release of a second comedy album, National Lampoon Lemmings, containing material from the first Lampoon stage show, which was primarily a parody of the Woodstock music festival. A variety of other National Lampoon albums came later, including Missing White House Tapes (1974), Official National Lampoon Stereo Test and Demonstration Record (1974), and White Album (1980).
Theatre and radio
National Lampoon’s Lemmings premiered Off-Broadway in New York City in January 1973 and later toured the country. Its cast members included John Belushi and Chevy Chase, who would go on to find stardom on TV’s Saturday Night Live (SNL). A second live show, The National Lampoon Show, debuted in 1975 and featured Belushi along with future director Harold Ramis and a clutch of future SNL cast members: Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, and Brian Doyle-Murray. Two additional stage shows, If We’re Late, Start Without Us and National Lampoon’s Class of ’86, were produced in 1979 and 1986, respectively.
As the popularity of National Lampoon grew in the early 1970s, the company produced a nationally syndicated weekly radio show titled The National Lampoon Radio Hour (1973–74), which was popular on college campuses. Its cast and writers included Belushi, Chase, Radner, Murray, Ramis, O’Donoghue, Richard Belzer, and Christopher Guest. A radio show titled True Facts, based on a popular feature within the magazine, was produced in 1977–78.
Movies and television
In 1978 National Lampoon, in association with Universal Pictures, produced a low-budget comedy film about a rowdy college fraternity titled National Lampoon’s Animal House. It received strong reviews and became the second highest-grossing film of that year, behind Grease. Written by Ramis, Kenney, and Chris Miller and directed by John Landis, the film starred Belushi, John Vernon, Tim Matheson, Peter Riegert, Stephen Furst, and Thomas Hulce. A television series based on the film, Delta House, was produced by ABC-TV in 1979. Though it featured several of the stars of the motion picture, including Vernon and Furst, it failed to capture the iconoclastic feel of the film and was cancelled after about three months.
With the success of Animal House, National Lampoon was suddenly hot in Hollywood. Subsequent films include Class Reunion (1982) and National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), both of which were written by John Hughes. National Lampoon’s Vacation, starring Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, and Imogene Coca, was based on Hughes’s short story “Vacation ’58,” which appeared in the September 1979 issue of National Lampoon. The film inspired four sequels. Several other motion pictures were produced under the National Lampoon brand, and many National Lampoon alumni went on to write and/or appear in a variety of commercially and critically successful motion pictures in subsequent years.